General English

  • noun a person who acts in the theatre, in films or on TV

Media Studies

  • noun a person who acts in plays, films or television


  • A person who acts in a play, film, etc., especially one whodoes so professionally. The term used to be reserved for male actorsbut is now used increasingly of women also.

    The first actor known to us by name is Thespis (6thcentury BC), who is usually considered the founder of theprofession. In ancient Greece acting was considered an honourableoccupation. This was less so in ancient Rome, although some performers,most notably the comedian Quintus Roscius Gallus (120 - 62BC), are known to have enjoyed a high social position.

    This situation changed with the adoption of Christianity asthe state religion. Thereafter actors were deprived of their legalrights and forced into virtual slave labour for theater managers.Professional acting did not revive until the 16th century, with theadvent of the commedia dell'arte companies. The early travellingactors often endured miserable poverty. In 1603 the Spanish writerAugustin de Rojas Villandrando wrote:

    They sleep in their clothes, go barefoot, are always hungry,rid themselves of their fleas amid the grain in summer and do notfeel them on account of the cold in winter.
    In Elizabethan England the first professional company wasorganized by James Burbage (see Burbage family).Unlicensed performers, however, were still classified as vagabondsand liable to whipping or imprisonment. In 1597 the Lord Mayor of Londonobjected to a proposed theater because it would portray vice, attractdepraved spectators, and spread disease - an attitude maintained by suchpuritan campaigners as William Prynne, who denounced actors as "the veryfilth and off-scouring, the very lewdest, basest, worst, and perniciouslyvicious of the sons of men". Audiences were often no more respectful,sometimes forcing actors to halt an unpopular performance and startanother play. Poor acting resulted in a bombardment with oranges,nuts, tiles, and even benches. In Catholic countries actors were refusedthe sacraments and denied Christian burial (see Adrienne Lecouvreur).

    In the 18th century the status of the acting profession wasgreatly enhanced by David Garrick, who, according to EdmundBurke, "raised the character of his profession to the rank ofa liberal art". Other great British actors of the 18th and 19thcenturies include Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, andHenry Irving. The profession finally achieved full respectabilitywhen Irving was knighted in 1895. In 1970 Laurence Olivierbecame the first theatrical knight to be raised to the peerage.

    Despite this late-won respectability, actors continue to attracttheir share of derogatory comment (the following are all from modernsources):

    Acting is therefore the lowest of the arts, if it is an artat all.
    George Moore: Mummer-Worship
    At one time I thought he wanted to be an actor. He had certainqualifications, including no money and a total lack of responsibility.
    Hedda Hopper: From Under My Hat
    Scratch an actor and you'll find an actress.
    Dorothy Parker
    An actor's a guy who, if you ain't talking about him, ain'tlistening.
    Marlon Brando
    They didn't act like people and they didn't act like actors.It's hard to explain. They acted more like they knew they were celebritiesand all.
    J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
    We're actors - we're the opposite of people.
    Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
    A talented actor is as rare as an arsehole in the face.
    Thomas Bernhard: The Showman

    see also actress; advice to actors.